Torn between spoiling my ballot and voting for Jeremy Corbyn, I’ve chosen the latter
Like many left-leaning people in this country I was devastated by last year’s general election result. I guess I’m privileged that the Conservative victory has not and is unlikely to have many adverse effects on my life. Not everyone in this country has or will be so lucky. Nonetheless, I was bitterly disappointed.
A sinking feeling that was compounded by the parade of senior Labour figures arguing that even the relatively-moderate manifesto the Labour Party presented — which included a commitment to drastically reduce public expenditure — was “too left wing.” A crude perspective that quickly became accepted wisdom amongst the Westminster commentariat.
It was so exciting, then, when Jeremy Corbyn entered and began to pull ahead in the leadership election. Here was someone who I could believe in and support passionately. I helped with a couple of stalls in Oxford (and noted a largely positive public reaction) and donated to his campaign.
It’s been an odd and difficult year. If I’m honest with myself, I have been quite disappointed by Jeremy’s leadership. From what I’ve read he doesn’t seem particularly easy to work for, at times the leadership has seemed paralysed by a mixture of paranoia, inexperience and confusion — decisions going unmade, shadow ministers left without direction, media messages bungled.
I am no psephologist, but even to my uneducated eye the polling looks bad. A recent ComRes poll gave Jeremy a net favorability rating of minus 28 (only Donald Trump was viewed less favourably). The local elections a few months ago, although not disastrous, did not suggest the party had made much progress. In Scotland we faced the humiliation of coming third behind the Conservatives.
We’ve also drifted on policy. Too often exciting slogans or new ideas have not been accompanied by the necessary vision and ground-work to transform them into a workable programme. We have loudly asserted what we are “against,” but have not yet offered a compelling, intelligent and positive alternative to modern British capitalism.
Naturally, Jeremy has faced huge obstacles. There have been Labour MPs who have undermined him at every turn, some individuals have never missed an opportunity to parade across the TV screens filled with faux outrage at the latest artificial drama. The media, including the Guardian, have been at best apprehensive and at worst actively hostile, more than happy to spread negative rumours or dwell with glee on any and all mistakes.
It is, of course, unfair, but wholly predictable under the circumstances. Someone as radical and anti-establishment as Jeremy is always going to face constant and violent opposition. This isn’t cricket; the ruling class will not surrender the gains they have made under neoliberalism easily. As the late American comedian and left-wing activist Al Lewis once asserted “[t]he ruling class is smarter than you, and they’re more creative. And if you forget that lesson, you go down the drain.”
Consequently, to stand a chance of electoral success, a radical opposition leader has got to be really “on it”. They’ve got be wiley; they’ve got to be charismatic; they’ve got to be strategic; they’ve got to be open-minded; they’ve got to be resilient; they’ve got to be a unifier; they’ve got to be persuasive. It’s fair to say this is an ideal that Jeremy has often fallen short of.
Party members and supporters have, however, been given an alternative to Jeremy in the shape of Owen Smith.
There are obvious question marks regarding Owen’s background. He, of course, worked as a PR man for Pfizer. There’s nothing wrong in working for the private sector, but working in public relations for a multinational drug company that holds the dubious honour of having been handed the largest corporate fine of a drug company in US legal history, crosses a line.
In 2006 he famously contested a by-election in Blaenau Gwent. Although he admitted the Iraq War had been a mistake, at the time he claimed this was his only major policy disagreement with Tony Blair — “[i]f PFI works, then let’s do it,” he told Wales Online during the campaign. As The Daily Telegraph put it Owen appeared “[a]bout as New Labour as you can get.” Despite the Party spending vast amounts during the campaign, Owen lost to an independent, ex-Labour activist. This seat — previously represented by Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot — had been considered one of the safest in the country. Labour’s defeat was widely seen at the time as a symptom of the Party’s malaise and alienation from its traditional working class base. Following his victory over Owen, Dai Davis warned the Party leadership “[y]ou take people for granted at your peril.” This episode hardly represents an auspicious start to a political career.
His career since then has followed a similar path, a little too willing to compromise the party’s values for, often, illusory political advantage, as with his decision to tow the party line and abstain on the Welfare Bill last year.
If this leadership campaign had been an test of Owen’s political savvy, the results have been mixed. There have been quite a few gaffes. The media have been amazingly forgiving. He would not enjoy this luxury during a general election campaign when his opponent would be a Conservative Prime Minister, rather than an old, bearded socialist.
Nonetheless, Owen has undoubted strengths. I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of the policy ideas he’s put forward during the campaign. Nor do I underestimate his abilities as a politician or indeed an orator. He seems like a decent, moral man, doing his best in a difficult situation.
The fundamental reason why I cannot vote for Owen is that I would see it as a tacit endorsement of the coup attempt, which I believe to have done — and to be doing — untold damage to the Labour Movement in this country. Apart from damaging our credibility with the country at a time of great national crisis, it has also severely weakened the bonds that unite us on the “broad left”, threatening the coalition of ideas and interests that is our only hope of achieving positive change in this country.
George Washington in his 1796 “Farewell address to Congress” warned that factionalism was itself “a frightful despotism,” and that it “agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
The level of abuse, vitriol and paranoia on both sides of this campaign is staggering and deeply upsetting. If there was distrust and alienation before the challenge, it is five times worse now. The coup attempt has persuaded — rightly or wrongly — left-wing people up and down this country that the Parliamentary Labour Party has nothing but disdain for their beliefs, values and ideas.
I am, then, stuck between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” For some time I have been tempted to abstain. Indeed, as my friends and work colleagues will attest, I have been in the throes of existential crisis on whether to support Jeremy or spoil my ballot. After much deliberation I have settled on the former.
I have been asked to make a choice between two candidates, and to abdicate from that responsibility is not terribly constructive. What’s more, I keep on reminding myself that Jeremy has not yet been leader for a year. We haven’t necessarily gone forward, but neither have we gone backwards, and seeing that a general election is likely to be four years away, I will give him more of a chance. He won an overwhelming democratic mandate last September and deserves a “fair crack of the whip.”
Enrique Oltuski — an anti-Batista, but also anti-Communist political activist in pre-revolutionary Cuba — remarked upon meeting Ernesto “Che” Guevera that “[i]n spite of everything … one can’t help admiring him. He knows what he wants better than we do. And he lives entirely for it.” Although, Jeremy Corbyn is, of course, not really comparable to Che Guevera (he has a far greater respect for human rights for example!), there is nonetheless something about this quote that reminds me of Jeremy. He has a clarity of vision, an unwillingness to ignore the barbarism of modern capitalism and war, what Gordon Brown might have called a “moral compass,” that I have a huge respect for. He still has the ability to inspire me, to get me out campaigning, after listening to one of his speeches I’m often filled with a mixture of passion for our Movement, indignation at the injustices of the world, and optimism for the future.
So I will vote for Jeremy. If he is reelected, the onus is on him to prove to the party that he can take onboard the legitimate criticism that has been levelled at his leadership. He will need to restructure his office, reach out to all sections of the PLP and bring people back into the fold (addressing their concerns along the way), but also be tough on those who try and subvert his leadership using underhand and uncomradely tactics, harness the potential offered by the significantly increased membership, think critically about his “management style” (a few less granola bars and a few more decisions), and build a team capable of producing a programme that is as workable as it is radical.
Finally, the tone of internal party debate has, undoubtedly, soured during Jeremy’s leadership. In The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell bemoaned “the horrible — the really disquieting — prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together.” Certainly, the Labour Party has had its fair share of crankiness over the last year. This is not Jeremy’s fault per se but he does need to do more to help foster an atmosphere of mutual-respect and comradadliness in the party, especially following this bruising leadership battle. What’s more, he needs to make sure that the more unpleasant cranks — the antisemites, the SWPers, the thugs, the defenders of terrorists or totalitarian regimes — find no home in the Labour Party.
Our responsibility as Party Members is to try and move on from this crisis, build a new consensus, and take our values and ideas to the public. Here’s hoping we can pull together come the Autumn.